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VOL. 127 | NO. 85 | Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hart Brings Different Perspective of System

By Bill Dries

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There was a time when Tomeka Hart vowed never to return to her hometown, Memphis.


Hart, who is a countywide school board member running for U.S. Congress in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, is not the first elected official in Memphis to make such an admission.

Other political leaders have told similar stories.

In Hart’s case, the vow and her decision to return and then run for elected office were all reactions to her realization that she went to Memphis City Schools that didn’t prepare her for college the way other city schools in other parts of town prepared their students.

“I had no clue that it was ridiculous that as a high school senior we couldn’t offer AP (advanced placement) English because the teacher didn’t have enough students,” Hart told the Frayser Exchange Club recently.

The school system suggested Hart transfer to an optional program at Snowden School for junior high instead of going to Georgian Hills Junior High School. She went briefly and then her parents let her go to Georgian Hills. Before her first year at Trezevant, the school system suggested Central High School but she stayed at and graduated from Trezevant.

Hart scored a 22 on her ACT exam with no preparation. She applied to and was accepted at the only school that had shown any interest in her based on that score – the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She didn’t know about test preparation or applying to other colleges and student aid because it wasn’t offered at Trezevant.

“That’s when it all hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said of her move to Knoxville. “I meet other students … from Memphis City Schools. I’m meeting students and I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean you had this kind of experience that’s unheard of at Trezevant High School?’ I got disheartened. … There was something wrong with that picture for me.”

Hart moved to the Atlanta area after graduation and was a school teacher for five years. She then went to law school and that’s when her mother talked her into going to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law where she earned her law degree.

She also began watching the actions of a school board she thought wasn’t doing enough to change the school system or taking its role in setting policy seriously enough.

“Don’t you hate when every time politicians get up, the only reason they ran is because everybody in the community called them and told them to run?” she said of her successful bid for the Memphis City Schools board in 2004. “That’s not my story. I didn’t talk to anybody. Nobody called me and said you should run for school board.”

Instead she decided the time to run was right because no one else in the circles she was part of was running. She upset incumbent Hubon Sandridge.

“I quickly learned the difference between administration and governance. Some of the things people would like me to deal with – it was outside of my power as an individual board member,” Hart said. “The constituent service is really when people have problems helping them figure out how to get a solution, which sometimes doesn’t always mean it’s the answer they want.”

Hart also discounts the idea of always basing her votes and actions on what a majority of constituents want.

“I know some of y’all are mad about the merger,” she told the Exchange Club of her early role in calling for a merger of the county’s two public school systems.

“We certainly didn’t reach everybody,” she said later of the move to the city referendum in March 2011 where voters approved the merger. “But we worked hard and we spent a lot of time talking to people about why we felt this was needed.”

One reason is the same one that motivated Hart in several ways including her current role as president and CEO of the Memphis Urban League.

When Carol Johnson became MCS superintendent, Hart’s first meeting with her was about why optional schools couldn’t be expanded and why some courses weren’t offered at all schools.

“It’s because there was some intentional deliberate adult action around the edges,” Hart said. “My theory has been what we now call our honors program, our optional program, should be basic education that every child gets. And then we still need to provide rigor for students who can handle the rigor and then the support for students who need intervention.”

She gives MCS superintendent Kriner Cash credit for every city school having more than one AP course.

“We have seen improvement, but what I want to see in this merged district is deliberate and intentional action on every school in every community providing students the opportunity to take those courses,” she said.

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